IN SIXTH GRADE I played football in rural Ash Creek, Arizona. My family had just moved there from a suburb of Phoenix, and my only prior experience with football had been when my dad would toss one around with my two younger brothers and me, drilling me in the chest with hard passes. He’d also play some two-on-two games with us. As the oldest, I always had to be on the opposite team from my father, and I spent a lot of time getting knocked down by him. Of course both my brothers hated being saddled with me and having to learn how to lose with grace and dignity. They preferred to do victory dances and be poor winners.
The hard tip of the football bruised my body, and the ache in my head from hitting the grass left me feeling that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the game. I wasn’t even good against kids my own size on the playground, having been blessed with the natural ability to drop an easy pass or trip while running. I was so small that other kids could easily stiff-arm me out of the way. At my old school I hadn’t played organized sports of any kind; I had played trumpet in the school band. But my father said that in America, if you wanted it bad enough, all you had to do was work hard, and you could succeed. If I didn’t want it bad enough, I’d lose, he said, much like America had lost its will to win against the Viet Cong. It was 1974. I supposed he meant I needed to be more like the guerrilla fighters he’d fought in the war.
We were living in tents on forty acres an hour’s drive outside of Ash Creek, where my parents hoped to survive off the “fat of the land,” they said. Throughout the summer before I entered sixth grade, we attempted to build a house — a “hacienda,” my father called it — out of adobe bricks we made by digging a hole, adding water, straw, and dirt, and then stomping the mud with our bare feet until it was the right consistency to shovel into frames my father had constructed out of two-by-fours. My parents’ plan was to create some kind of frontier utopia where we would all be yeoman farmers. “A little hard work,” my dad said. Unfortunately there is only so much manpower you can get out of grade-school kids ranging in age from five to eleven, none of us skilled in building anything except out of Lincoln Logs, Lego blocks, and Tinker-toys.
Near the end of the summer my siblings and I had to go to school orientation to learn what we’d need for the upcoming year. (The school was K–8.) By then we had dug a two-foot-deep foundation and filled this rectangular ditch with I don’t know how many metric tons of rock hauled in the trunk of my dad’s Ford Torino from Turkey Creek, some two miles away. We had also stacked dozens of heavy mud bricks next to the big hole. Before we left for the orientation, my mom and dad had us lather up with soap and then sprayed us down with frigid water from the three-hundred-gallon trailer-mounted tank. The water made my scalp hurt, and we shivered in the early-morning chill, the cold desert night still hanging close around us like hard luck. Mom outfitted my brothers and me in jeans and western shirts and my sister in a dress sewn by my grandmother. We looked a little like refugees from The Grapes of Wrath, but we were clean.
My father made us pancakes over the campfire. His pancakes always had a little wood ash in them — at least, we hoped it was wood ash; he was a chain smoker and free with where he flicked his cigarettes — but they were yummy slathered in syrup and butter. Football tryouts were after orientation. While we ate, my father turned his head from the skillet, squinted through the cigarette and fire smoke, and told me, “You tell the coach you’re a running back.” I nodded, not knowing exactly what a running back was.
The coach was a short, muscular man with a small gut and thinning hair who also taught science, math, and history. He had the look of a guy who’d played nose tackle in college and hated the glory-hound running backs. When he asked me what made me a good running back, I thought of my father’s brothers, with their cigarette-and-whiskey-stained teeth, sitting around watching games on Sunday with Grandpa when we’d lived in Kentucky, where my father was raised. All former quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, they bragged of their high-school gridiron heroics, of long passes and good hands and fast feet. The drunker they got, the longer the passes became. They talked about how the grass on the field smelled early in the season, with summer still on it, and how it smelled later, as the north-Kentucky autumn stretched toward winter and they hunted for the championship, rising off the frozen ground to throw or catch one more pass.
The field in Ash Creek would never freeze. With its uneven dirt and rocks and clumps of dead grass and mown-over tumbleweeds, it looked like the photographs of No Man’s Land I had seen in books about World War I. Throughout our season on the Western Front we would emerge from practice with bloody rashes, twisted ankles (from stepping in gopher holes), and the occasional snakebite.
As I tried to formulate an answer for the coach, other kids tossed the football and sprinted around the field. Some of the eighth-graders looked as big as my uncles. I couldn’t imagine bashing into them. They ran fast on long legs that I knew I couldn’t keep up with. Even the smaller kids appeared stronger than I was, probably from years spent wrestling calves and stringing barbed wire. The coach stared at me as I stood on the sidelines wondering what to say. All I could think was how I wanted to play the trumpet.
THE TRUMPET had come into my hands by accident in the fourth grade at my old elementary school. Anyone interested in band was invited to the school one evening, where all the instruments had been laid out in the auditorium for the students to examine. Brass and silver flashed under the lights as kids and parents handled saxophones, flutes, tubas, oboes, clarinets, drums, and trumpets. The velvet-lined case and the sharp smell of valve lubrication filled my head with thoughts of marching bands and mariachis. The trumpet was cool to the touch and as smooth as the skin of my palms.
“Give it a try,” my dad said. “Blow a note.”
I thought of the bugler blowing reveille and the haunting taps in all those cavalry movies with John Wayne. I held the instrument up. The weight pulled my skinny body forward, so I leaned back a little, put my lips to the mouthpiece, and blew. It made a sound like steam rushing through pipes.
It would take a couple of days for me to learn to purse my lips and make a weak note and weeks to understand how to control my breath, lips, and tongue all at once and manipulate the keys to play tunes like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “The Cancan,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and “Louie Louie.” These songs were not like the music my mother and father listened to: country-and-western songs about truck drivers and cowboys, or the Beatles, or Johnny Rivers, almost all of which were played on guitars. When I stayed up late at Grandma’s house, she watched The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and I heard Doc Severinsen play trumpet with the orchestra. That guy had style. Next to taps, the tune I most wanted to learn was the Tonight Show theme.
There were five trumpet players in our grade-school band, and I made second chair. I wanted to make first chair and worked hard at it, but I still had fun playing. For concerts we dressed in black slacks, white shirts, and yellow vests with a tiger’s head printed on the back. The crowds applauded, and we stood and bowed together. Once I even had a solo. I was jittery beforehand just thinking about it, but I had practiced a lot, and when it came time for me to stand, I didn’t think of the crowd of parents and other kids, or of my music teacher, who knew how it was supposed to sound. I just closed my eyes and played.
THE ASH CREEK football field had a barbed-wire fence on one side, with coils of extra wire hanging from posts, reinforcing its resemblance to a battlefield. Lizards and kangaroo rats had tunneled under the gridiron, pushing up mounds of dirt as in a minefield. Some cattle had busted through the fence, and flies buzzed over cow patties. Beyond the wire stretched the desert.
“Well?” The coach had one hand on his hip, and the other held a whistle. The sons of ranchers and field hands threw around footballs, kicking up dust. I sweated under my pads.
There was no school band at Ash Creek. My new trumpet teacher had to drive three hours to give me lessons, and he could do it only one afternoon a week. The timing coincided with one of the five weekly football practices. At the start of tryouts the coach had said, “You miss one practice, you can’t play.”
I didn’t understand how one practice out of five could make a difference. “It’s only one day,” I said.
“That’s the rule.”
When I’d played the trumpet in Gilbert, the school’s band teacher had offered private lessons after school. I told my parents I wanted to take lessons from her, because I wanted to be first chair and was a little irked that I hadn’t worked my way up to it yet. My father had made it clear that unless you could be the best at something, it was pointless to waste your time on it. I loved playing music and didn’t want it to be a waste of time. My father said, “Tell your teacher you need to learn how to play ‘The Lonely Bull,’ because you’re not a real trumpeter until you can play it.” I didn’t let on that I’d never even heard of the song — a 1962 hit recorded by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. I had been playing the trumpet for a year by then and didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t the remotest familiarity with this essential piece.
When I made my request, sitting next to the band teacher in the music room, she asked, “Do you like ‘The Lonely Bull’?” She warned me that it required fast fingers and precise breath control. She was tall and blond and looked down at me with her almond eyes, waiting for an answer. I shrugged. “Let’s start with something easier,” she said, “and if you work hard, we’ll see how it goes.” She pointed to the metal music stand. I opened my spit valve and blew some slobber onto the carpet. I never asked her again.
My father was disappointed when I wasn’t able to play “The Lonely Bull” after two semesters’ worth of weekly lessons. “What do you expect?” he said. “You didn’t practice enough.” I never made it past second chair.
THE FOOTBALL COACH looked me up and down as if I were a steer at auction. “Mathes, how about you run on over there and toss the ball around. Get warmed up.”
“My father will want to know what position I am when I get home.” I was fairly certain the word home didn’t have to refer to a house.
The coach sighed and said, “You tell your old man that I’ll play you where I want. Now get on over there and warm up.”
I put on my helmet, kicked at some cow crap, and walked into a crowd of players on their way to a losing season. The coach made me a linebacker and a tight end. I practiced this new set of skills, but my underdeveloped body didn’t respond. I think I wanted to win as much as anyone else, but some kids had a talent that couldn’t be explained by “They wanted it more” or “They practiced more.” I chased after running backs who faked me out and left me struggling to catch my balance as they sprinted for the end zone. I watched passes sail over my head into the arms of receivers at a dead run. I got bruised and bloodied, had the wind speared out of me, jammed my fingers, and bit my tongue. I was knocked down so many times that I learned the best way to fall to soften the blow. A kid on one team we played weighed thirty pounds more than our heaviest player, and it was my job to stop him. My head rang for a couple of days afterward.
When I’d told my trumpet teacher that I was going to play football instead of taking lessons, I couldn’t tell if he was disgusted or relieved. He just gathered his music books, stuffed them into a leather satchel, and left. On long bus rides home from away games, I’d wonder why I had given up the trumpet for this. But deep down I knew why: to please my father and fit in with my uncles, none of whom played an instrument, except one who reportedly could play piano by ear. But he always talked about football like the rest of them. He probably wanted to fit in too. Family tradition is a force as strong as gravity, I thought, sucking our childhood hopes into the black hole of our ancestors’ past glory. Riding long distances through the desert slumped in a school-bus seat does make a person contemplative.
I still played the trumpet on my own, after I’d completed my schoolwork and the chores of building the hacienda. I walked far out into the desert to practice because my father didn’t want to listen to “that noise,” and my mother was often stricken with migraines and lay on a cot with a washcloth over her eyes. I blew that horn to the mesquite and cactus, the range cows and coyotes. But most of my sheet music was from band, and the individual parts from a concert score sounded incomplete without the rest. Playing felt more and more pointless and irrelevant, all alone in the desert, learning nothing new and not sure if what I was doing was right. I ached to be back in the band, to be a part of that bigger group, to be around others who spoke my language and understood me. But, as my dad often pointed out, “You got to make do with what you got.” I stood among the yucca plants, under a sky more immense than any I have known since, and played as loud as my young lungs could, the notes swallowed by the big blue expanse. I imagined that some cowboy, catching sight of the sun striking the brass, might fancy he’d glimpsed a city of gold just beyond his reach and heard its herald blow.
MY TRUMPET eventually became the property of a pawnshop. One day I went looking for it and couldn’t find it, and when I asked my mom, she said, “Bills needed to be paid. Besides, you weren’t using it.” I felt cheated because I had still been playing; they just hadn’t noticed. But now I think of all the money they spent on lessons and how my desire to play paled next to the need to feed their children.
We had to abandon the land — or, rather, the bank seized it — and take to the road like our Okie ancestors. My father loaded us into a sixteen-year-old white Dodge Dart with a red hood (the Ford Torino had gone to pay bills too), and we drove off, leaving behind what looked like the ruins of a mining camp: stacked bricks, a worthless hole in the ground, wind-battered tents sagging on aluminum poles. At the time I couldn’t imagine the defeat my parents must have felt, being expelled from their frontier Eden. By now, of course, I’ve had enough bastards beat me down to sympathize. They had wanted to provide for us an example — albeit a nineteenth-century one — of what the world should be like, but the world wouldn’t let them, because they didn’t have the money.
I don’t have many fond memories of Ash Creek, but I’ll never forget the afternoons my brothers and I accompanied our father into the desert to shoot jack rabbits and cottontails. He would take his twelve-gauge shotgun, and we would follow him along a cattle trail. Before long he’d flush out his prey and blast it. We all learned to gut and skin the rabbits, some of which my father fed to his coal-black Belgian shepherd, or my sister’s Chihuahua, or the four kittens he had brought home one day. Others my mom rolled in flour and fried up in a skillet on our camp stove. As the setting sun painted the sky with colors like smeared flowers, we’d hunker around the campfire and eat the gamy meat, tossing the bones into the flames like nomadic hunters.
One day our father shot a pregnant jack rabbit. I slit her hide, and the three kits spilled out, struggling against the membrane of the placenta. I freed them, cradled the bloody suckling bunnies in my shirt, and brought them back to the camp, where I put them in a box with some scraps of cloth my mom was saving to make a quilt. My mother mixed some powdered milk, and I nursed them with a dropper from an eye-medicine bottle. I was going to raise these rabbits. It was a peculiar thing to do: kill a creature and then try like hell to keep its babies alive. I didn’t ponder it too much.
The first rabbit died that morning, the second a day later. On the third afternoon the last bunny died. I mixed a glass of powdered milk and drank it, then carried the corpse out to where the others were buried and put it in the ground. I still had my trumpet, and I played it for all three of them. I was barefoot, feet toughened from days spent mixing mud and straw, and I held the trumpet with hands rough from men’s work. I faced my thin, shirtless, desert-tanned body to the west and worked up enough spit to play taps, the only piece of music I had ever successfully set out to learn on my own. I flubbed a couple of notes, and I’m certain it sounded horrible. That was the last time I ever played my trumpet: taps for a dead rabbit. I didn’t plan it that way.